Clear It with Sidney | Hillman Foundation

Clear It With Sidney

The best of the week’s news by Lindsay Beyerstein

Clear It with Sidney

Shadowy "Fourth Bureau" Mines Consumer Data

Consumers Union, the non-profit publisher of Consumer Reports, called on members of Congress last week to investigate the “fourth bureau,” an obscure corner of the private sector that collects and sells miscellaneous consumer data to potential lenders, landlords, employers, and health-care providers, all with little oversight.

In her letter to lawmakers, the head of the Consumers Union cites an expose by Ylan Q. Mui in the Washington Post.

Mui explains that the three major credit bureaus keep tabs on consumers who are enmeshed in the mainstream financial system through credit cards, mortgages, auto loans, and other debts. But what about people who don’t have that kind of paper trail? How is their creditworthiness reckonned? 

The answer increasingly lies in the “fourth bureau” — companies such as L2C that deal in personal data once deemed unreliable. Although these dossiers cover consumers in all walks of life, they carry particular weight for the estimated 30 million people who live on the margins of the banking system. Yet almost no one realizes these files exist until something goes wrong.

Federal regulations do not always require companies to disclose when they share your financial history or with whom, and there is no way to opt out when they do. No standard exists for what types of data should be included in the fourth bureau or how it should be used. No one is even tracking the accuracy of these reports. That has created a virtually impenetrable system in which consumers, particularly the most vulnerable, have little insight into the forces shaping their financial futures. [WaPo]

Mui introduces us to Catherine Taylor, an Arkansas woman who was accidentally blacklisted by a forth bureau firm for someone else’s criminal charges. Her ChoicePoint report falsely stated that she’d been charged with methamphetamine-related offenses. Taylor says a stranger with the same name and birthdate racked up those charges.

The innocent Catherine Taylor only learned of the undeserved blemish on her record after she was turned down for a job at the Red Cross several years ago.

In a sense, Taylor was lucky. The Red Cross sent her a copy of her ChoicePoint record, which alerted her to the error. Otherwise, she might never have found out. Consumers have the legal right to free copies of their Big Three credit reports annually. There are dispute resolution processes to enable consumers to correct erroneous information. Not so with the fourth bureau.

The fourth bureau is a Catch-22 for consumers. There’s no official list of fourth bureau agencies, so you might be a blacklisted by a company you don’t even know about.

Taylor has hired an attorney to help clear her name, but the damage has already been done. Her blemished record has apparently been redistributed to other companies. Gatekeepers are still making decisions about her based on flawed information and there’s no easy way to correct the record once and for all. Years after the original mistake, the error has ravaged her credit rating so badly that she can’t even get financing for a dishwasher. 

The fourth bureau’s verdicts are shaping the lives of some of the most vulnerable consumers, without their knowledge or consent.

The verdicts of this unregulated sector can determine whether someone ever gets access to the mainstream financial system in order to build a regular credit rating. Consumers can be stuck with higher interest rates and fees because some fourth bureau company’s secret algorithm deems them sketchy.

This kind of secrecy puts honest businesses at a disadvantage as well. They want to know if prospective applicants are good risks. Without transparency, for all they know, they might be paying for the use of a black box that operates on the Garbage In/Garbage Out principle.

The Consumers Union is right: Congress must investigate the fourth bureau.

"What Were They Thinking?" Elizabeth Drew on the Debt Ceiling Debacle

In the New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Drew thoughtfully pre-explains a question that will no doubt baffle future generations of historians:

Someday people will look back and wonder, What were they thinking? Why, in the midst of a stalled recovery, with the economy fragile and job creation slowing to a trickle, did the nation’s leaders decide that the thing to do—in order to raise the debt limit, normally a routine matter—was to spend less money, making job creation all the more difficult? Many experts on the economy believe that the President has it backward: that focusing on growth and jobs is more urgent in the near term than cutting the deficit, even if such expenditures require borrowing. But that would go against Obama’s new self-portrait as a fiscally responsible centrist.

Drew’s essay is essential reading for anyone who’s unclear on why the United States seems poised to commit what a blogger at the has dubbed “the biggest unforced error in history.”

Calvin Trillin Looks Back on the Freedom Rides

The first Freedom Ride began May 4, 1961 when thirteen civil rights activists set out from Washington, D.C. on a public bus bound for the Deep South. Seven black and six white riders sponsored by the Congress on Racial Equality set out to defy state segregation laws. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled the previous year that segregation of interstate bus and rail facilities was unconstitutional, but Southern authorities ignored the ruling and continued to enforce state laws while the federal government looked the other way.

Ten days into the journey, a white mob in Birmingham attacked one of the Freedom Riders’ buses. Their other bus was firebombed in nearby Anniston. A few days later, students from the Nashville branch of the sit-in movement, energized by their successful campaign to desegregate their city’s lunch counters, travelled to Birmingham to pick up where CORE left off. In all, about 400 men and women took part in the protest.

In this week’s New Yorker, Calvin Trillin recalls his yearlong stint as a young white reporter covering what was known as “the Seg Beat” for the Atlanta bureau of Time from the fall of 1960 through the fall of 1961. Trillin completed various assignments, including an early story about the eponymous founder of the John Birch Society, who believed that Dwight. D. Eisenhower was a secret Communist agent. “Mostly, though, I’d be at the airport early in the week for a flight to someplace where Jim Crow was being challenged,” he writes. During Trillin’s time on the “Seg Beat,” the New Orleans school system desegregated, sit-ins integrated lunch counters in Nashville and Atlanta, and the Freedom Riders passed through the Deep South. Trillin reported from the bus as the Freedom Ride passed through Alabama and Mississippi. Trillin discusses his essay in this free New Yorker Out Loud podcast.

Trillin almost didn’t get on the bus in the first place. He wasn’t sure whether getting on board would be crossing the line from reporting to activism. In the end, he decided it was a public bus and the press had as much right to be there as anyone else.

Besides, his goal as a reporter was to be fair, not to act as if the segretationists had an equally valid point of view, despite all historical, legal, and moral evidence to the contrary. “I didn’t pretend that we were covering a struggle in which all sides–the side that thought, for instance, that all Americans had the right to vote and the side that thought that people who acted on such a belief should have their houses burned down–had an equally compelling case to make,” Trillin writes.

Trillin recalls how controversial the Freedom Ride campaign was, even within the civil rights movement. In retrospect, the campaign seems like a natural outgrowth of the successful sit-in movement. However, Trillin notes that many civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers, didn’t initially see it that way.

The central lie of the pro-segregationist movement was that Southerners of all races were happy with their region’s segregated “way of life.” Actually, Jim Crow wasn’t an ancient way of life, it was a post-Reconstruction-era backlash, but the segretationists weren’t counting. In an astonishing feat of rhetorical jiu jitsu, they claimed the real cause of racial conflict wasn’t black southerners chafing against their second-class citizenship, but rather, outside agitators bent on causing trouble where none existed.

Many civil rights leaders were concerned that Freedom Rides would validate the oppressors’ narrative by pitting outsiders against locals. The Freedom Ride organizers countered that no one was an outsider because they were all Americans.

The tactical dispute fell by the wayside once the Freedom Riders got bogged down in the Deep South under assault. The larger movement and the Kennedy Administration were forced to defend them. The audacity of the Riders ultimately carried the day. After nearly five months of riding, the Interstate Commerce Commission formally banned segregation in interstate bus and rail facilities.

The Freedom Rides are now remembered as an early and important victory in the ongoing Civil Rights Movement.

To learn more about the Freedom Rides, check out this free full-length documentary: Freedom Riders, produced by WGBH American Experience, and directed by Stanley Nelson.

Media Critics Respond to Jose Antonio Vargas's Immigration Revelation

Jose Antonio Vargas’s Sidney Award-winning account of his life as a reporter and undocumented immigrant has sparked a range of responses from fellow journalists since it appeared in the New York Times Magazine last month.

Vargas came forward nearly twenty years after family sent him to the U.S. from the Philippines at the age of 12. He says he didn’t learn about his immigration status until he tried to apply for a drivers’ license at the age of 16. He decided to forge ahead with his life in America, including his dream of becoming a reporter. He describes how he used forged documents to obtain a drivers’ license and falsely claimed to be a citizen when he applied for various media jobs.

Jack Shafer of Slate argued that Vargas undercut his own credibility as a journalist by admitting to a pattern of deceit:

I get on my high horse about Vargas’ lies because reporter-editor relationships are based on trust. A news organization can’t function if editors must constantly cross-examine their reporters in search of deliberate lies. I’m more disturbed with Vargas for lying to the Washington Post Co. (which—disclosure alert!—employs me) than I am about him breaking immigration law. His lies to the Post violated the compact that makes journalism possible. It also may have put the company on the hook for violating immigration law [PDF], which slaps employers who knowingly employ illegal immigrants with legal sanctions and fines. This may be the case in the Vargas episode: In his story, he writes of telling one Post manager about his immigration status, and that manager, Peter Perl, took no action. blogger M.S. took issue with Shafer’s thesis, arguing that media organizations should take necessary steps to make sure that journalists tell the truth in print and ignore their personal lives:

There are many reasons why people lie. The way to tell whether you can trust your reporters is to subject them to withering scrutiny during their introductory phase on the job, and then, periodically and without warning, to subject them to withering scrutiny again. The responsibility for scrupulous accuracy is a procedural responsibility that needs to be instituted at an organisational level by management. Trustworthy organisations are run by people who build systems that produce reliable information; they’re not clubs composed of people who possess innate characterological trustworthiness. A newspaper editor should care whether his reporters are telling the truth in their professional journalistic work, and it’s that editor’s responsibility to institute reasonable procedures to ensure that they do so by making sure that systematic liars get caught quickly. Whether they’ve told their daughter that her father isn’t actually her biological father, or whatever, is none of the editor’s business. As I understand things, Jayson Blair doesn’t seem to have become a systematic liar until after he started working in the newspaper business.

M.S. argues that even journalists deserve a certain amount of leeway with regard to certain sensitive personal details because circumstances sometimes force otherwise trustworthy people to tell isolated lies in order to survive. I made a similar argument at Big Think in a post I wrote before I joined the Hillman Foundation. Some secrets have such devastating consequences that people are basically forced into lies. For example, we understand why an LGBT person might feel compelled to lie about their orientation in order to protect themselves from discrimination, social ostracism, or even violence. We don’t assume that every closeted person who comes out must therefore be less credible in other areas of their life. Holding them fully responsible for lying, without acknowledging that they never should have been put in that position in the first place, is a way of compounding the damage of an unfair system.

Vargas’ story illustrates how broken our immigration system is. He was brought to this country as a child and he learned his true status while he was still a minor. Did anyone seriously expect a 16-year-old to pack up and go back to the Philippines after his family had spent a relative fortune to bring him to the U.S.? He was trapped in someone else’s lie. His other option would have been to skirt the issue by going underground and taking menial jobs where no one would inquire too closely about his immigraiton status.

Yes, Vargas exposed his employers to some risk by lying about his immigration status. What’s worse? Consigning a promising young man to literal or figurative exile? Or subjecting an institution to the hypothetical risk of a fine between $275 and $2200 for hiring an undocumented person?

Other critics, including Vargas’s former boss at the San Francisco Chronicle, have suggested that Vargas undercut his credibility because he wrote about immigration issues without disclosing that he himself was an undocumented immigrant.

Dick Rogers wrote at

In an e-mail, Vargas, who went on to write for the Washington Post and Huffington Post, said he omitted his status “because I was afraid and fearful of the consequences.”

That’s exactly the point. Over his career, what else did he fail to report or write? It’s difficult to divine. The majority of his stories were routine: fires, crime, features. He also wrote often about diversity and immigration. Just as it’s hard to prove a negative, it’s hard to know whether Vargas listened sympathetically to some and less so to others, whether he was more inclined to hear one side of a story than others, whether he omitted information that hit too close to home.

This argument tacitly assumes that citizenship or legal residency is the default neutral position from which immigration should be covered. You could just as easily ask whether reporters who take their U.S. citizenship for granted might listen more sympathetically to some stories than others. Do anti-immigration activists get more sympathetic coverage because reporters are more likely to be documented than undocumented? Everyone has a stake in immigration policy. It’s not as if citizens and legal residents are inherently neutral and undocumented people are biased.

It’s a little more complicated if a reporter is lying about their immigration status, as opposed to simply not disclosing. But, as discussed above, sometimes people have good reasons to tell isolated lies about their personal lives. Refusing to cover immigration would only have attracted suspicion to a young reporter of color who was living in constant fear of exposure. Under the circumstances, demanding total transparency would be tantamount to demanding self-incrimination.

Vargas has become an advocate for the DREAM Act, proposed legislation that would help resolve the untenable position that Vargas and countless other undocumented young people face after being brought to the U.S. as children. We can all agree that it’s better for society and for journalism when people can be open about who they are. Instead of pointing fingers at individuals who lie after the fact, we should reform our institutions to make it easier for everyone to live and work with integrity.

Watch: Jose Antonio Vargas on the Colbert Report


June Sidney Award winner Jose Antonio Vargas appeared on Colbert Report last Thursday to talk about his explosive story, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.”

In the runup to his appearance on Colbert, Vargas gathered over 90,000 signatures to his Define American pledge, a virtual petiton advocating for immigration reform.

Colbert, who plays a blustery right wing talkshow host on his Emmy-Award winning Comedy Central show, has a longstanding interest in immigration issues. Last September, Colbert testified in character before the House Judiciary Committe about the hardships facing America’s farmworkers, an essential workforce that comprised largely of immigrants, many of whom are undocumented.

Jose Antonio Vargas wins June Sidney Award

The Sidney Hillman Foundation is very proud to announce that Jose Antonio Vargas is the winner of this month’s Sidney Award for excellence in journalism for his powerful and thought-provoking autobiographical story, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.”

When Vargas’ mother put him on a U.S.-bound flight from Manila one late summer morning in 1993, the twelve-year-old had no idea he was about to become one of our nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. He thought he was imigrating legally, as his grandparents, a security guard and a food service worker, had done years earlier. Vargas learned his true immigration status four years later when a clerk at the DMV informed his that his Green Card was forged. Like many immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children, Vargas was trapped. He reasoned that if citizenship hadn’t been given to him by birth or bureaucracy, he’d have to earn it.

With the help of an “underground railroad” of sympathetic friends and mentors, Vargas rose from his hometown paper to the heights of American journalism. Along the way, he shared a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for the Washington Post’s coverage of the Viriginia Tech massacre, saw his reporting turned into a documentary, and profiled facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for the New Yorker.

All this time, Vargas was haunted by his immigration status. The strain of keeping such a terrible secret ate away at his sense of security and his ability to feel close to others.

Vargas had hoped that the DREAM Act would pass before his last piece of official ID expired on his 30th birthday. The DREAM Act is 10-year-old piece of bipartisan legislation, currently stalled in Congress, that would give undocumented young people who were brought to this country as children the opportunity to earn legal permanent residency by going to college or serving the the military.

When the DREAM Act failed in the Senate, Vargas realized that the involuntary charade had gone on long enough. He decided to come forward in the hopes that his story would catalyze a more realistic debate about immigration in this country.

Learn more about Vargas and his piece in the Backstory, an email Q&A with Lindsay Beyerstein.

Jina Moore on Consent and Trauma Journalism

In light of the controversy surrounding Mac McClelland’s coverage of rape in Haiti, freelance journalist and media producer Jina Moore of suggests some ethical ground rules for journalists seeking to create longform or feature work about trauma survivors.

In a nutshell, Moore argues that trauma journalists must set higher standards for consent to coverage than journalists who write about public figures or even about private citizens in less extreme circumstances.

In her latest post, Moore makes a compelling case that the ethics of trauma journalism are a unique subset of journalistic ethics. Standard journalistic ethics assumes that the journalist has less power than the person she is interviewing. Trauma journalists must proceed from the opposite assumption: 

That’s what trauma reporting is. And that literally turns journalistic practice on its head. The rules of traditional journalism are written for a game in which the journalist is the disempowered party. Those rules are designed to get as much information as possible from people who, for reasons of self-interest, probably don’t want to give it to us. That’s why we have things like “on the record” – it’s public, no going back. Or “on background” – you can use the information, but you can’t name the source. Or even, “on deep background,” which is “for your edification only, and you can’t print/broadcast any of this.”

These are rules powerful people know. If you interview a State Department official, the first thing they will do is say, ‘This OTR” or “This is on background” or “How will this be used?” And you negotiate the rules. They know how the game works. Indeed, they know that it’s a game.

So we have to rewrite the rules. Trauma journalism requires that journalists acknowledge a major power shift – one that favors the journalists. We have to rewrite our playbook. The premise is still the same – protect the vulnerable – but now, we’re not the vulnerable. Our sources are.

Moore explored and illustrated some of these ideas in her essay, “The Pornography Trap: How Not to Write About Rape,” which appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review in early 2011.


Under Pressure, Tobacco Giant Agrees to Meet with Farm Labor Organizing Committee

Everyone knows cigarette are dangerous to smoke, but most people don’t realize how dangerous they are to produce. Nearly a quarter of tobacco pickers suffer from nicotine poisoning every season, according to research by farm worker advocacy groups.

Green Tobacco Syndrome (GTS) occurs when workers absorb nicotine, a psychostimulant drug, through their skin while handling mature tobacco plants. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, headache, muscle weakness, and dizziness. GTS is just on of many hazards faced by North Carolina’s estimated 100,000 migrant tobacco pickers (or “primers” as they are known in the industry). Primers work in remote camps where they may be exposed to improperly handled pesticides, unsanitary living conditions, and other preventable risks.

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) has scored a preliminary victory in its bid to hold tobacco giant Reynolds American accountable for upholding safety standards for its suppliers. Reynolds maintains that it is not responsible for how third-party suppliers treat their workers. The company has historically refused to meet with FLOC. However, after 3 years of FLOC pressure, including a high profile divestment campaign against a major Reynolds lender, the company announced in May that it would meet with FLOC and other groups to assess safety issues in its supply chain.

Read the whole story at Facing South, the blog of the Institute for Southern Studies. The post, by Joe Atkins, also appears on Atkins’ Labor South blog.


Mac McClelland and the Journalistic Ethics of Tweeting Rape

Human rights journalist and Sidney Award alumna Mac McClelland stirred up considerable controversy with a personal essay in GOOD entitled “How Violent Sex Eased My PTSD.” Therein, she described how she and her ex-boyfriend negotiated a violent simulated rape scene on the advice of her therapist. She says this encounter helped her recover from the post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) she had acquired over the course of several gruelling assignments for Mother Jones, including two weeks spent covering sexual violence in Haiti.

In the course of explaining how she got PTSD, McClelland recalls witnessing a rape survivor (“Sybille”) dissolve into paroxysms of terror at the sight of one of her rapists. The eminent Haitian-born author Edwidge Danticat took McClelland to task on for mentioning Sybille’s story in her GOOD essay after Sybille (a.k.a. “K”) had already requested that McClelland refrain from writing about her:

In her essay, Ms. McClelland writes that K*’s trauma led in part to her own breakdown. Nevertheless, during Ms. McClelland’s ride along with K*, on a visit to a doctor, Ms. McClelland, as has been reported elsewhere,  live-tweeted K*’s horrific experiences. The tweets put K*’s life in danger because they identified the displacement  camp where K* was living–with details of landmarks added–her specific injury, her real name, and suggest that she is a drug user. [LB: only the victim’s real first name was used.]

Blogger Jina Moore was shortlisted for a Mirror Award for her 2010 analysis of the journalistic ethics of live tweeting the original Mother Jones assignment. Moore argued that it was unethical for a journalist to appropriate a trauma victim’s story in this way.

Moore apparently wrote her original post before Sybille and her lawyer contacted Mother Jones to ask that McClelland not write about Sybille.

The details about who consented to what kind of coverage are murky. McClelland told her editors at Mother Jones that she had consent from both Sybille and her lawyer to cover the original ride to the hospital. Sybille’s American lawyer later claimed in a comment at that she agreed to McClelland’s request over the phone, relayed by a colleague on the ground. There’s no indication from either the lawyer’s comment, or Mother Jones editors’ comment in the same thread, that these ground rules were ever put in writing. Under the chaotic circumstances, the potential for honest misunderstanding seems huge.

The lawyer writes that she thought that McClelland had agreed to speak with her before publishing anything about Sybille. The lawyer also says she had no idea that McClelland would be live tweeting the trip to the hospital. The Mother Jones editors explain that, in light of the apparent misunderstanding, they agreed to remove all references to Sybille in McClelland’s 6000-word feature, which ran in early 2011.

Mother Jones may not have been obligated to make these changes, but it was clearly the right thing to do under the circumstances. First, the ground rules were disputed. Second, it’s clear from the feature that women who speak out about rape in Haiti may be risking their lives.

Yet, for whatever reason, McClelland decided to discuss Sybille in her GOOD essay, which Mother Jones didn’t know about until after it was published. Unlike the live tweets, the GOOD essay didn’t disclose any details about Sybille (not her real first name) that seem likely to put her at additional risk. (Addendum: McClelland apologized to Sybille in the comments at and took full responsibility for the decision to revisit the subject.)

Some critics are angry at McClelland for what they see as an appropriation of Sybille’s story. They argue that she is using the trauma of an unwilling subject as window dressing for her own psychosexual memoir. It seems to me that the major problem here was lack of editorial oversight for sensitive live tweets, not appropriation.

What concerns me is not so much that Mac told a story that “belonged” to someone else, but rather that she might have inadvertently put a victim’s life at risk in 2010 by tweeting identifying details about a crime victim, in real time, while the woman’s assailants remained at armed and at large. Common sense suggests that this is a terrible idea. It’s easy to say that in retrospect, but I can see how McClelland might have gotten caught up in the moment, especially if she thought she had permission from the victim and her lawyer.

Ethical journalists balance public’s need to know against potential harms to innocent people. In this case, there was no compelling need to know the these details of Sybille’s rape instantaneously. There is little journalistic value in covering an event like this in unfiltered 140-character bursts and considerable risk of harm. In fairness, twitter is a relatively new news medium and standards are still evolving. 

There’s a long history of journalists phoning in field reports to rewrite artists back in the newsroom. If something can be tweeted, it can just as easily be privately relayed to an editor or reporting partner for writeup with oversight. Twitter is not the only option for fast-breaking coverage. There are any number of nearly instantaneous ways to publish reports from the field. After Sybille and her lawyer complained, Mother Jones editors had the luxury of time to weigh their options and make a reasoned decision.

The allure of twitter is that it’s instantaneous and unfiltered. That’s all very well for color commentary under controlled conditions, like press conferences and sporting events. Twitter’s great for talking about reporting, when explains why so many journalists love the medium. However, there are situations where you simply don’t want reporters blurting their immediate impressions directly into the public record. Reporters have editors for a reason. This painful episode shows why unedited tweets aren’t suitable for directly covering anything more serious or complicated than a parade.

Life at 81 Bowery

In her New York Times photo essay, “A Bed, and a Key at 81 Bowery,” Annie Ling offers a glimpse at life inside a converted fourth floor loft that is home to thirty-five Chinese immigrants. Residents range in age from infancy to old age. Some have lived here for years, others have only recently arrived.

The rent is under $200 a month, but the living conditions are spartan. Residents get a bed, a key, and very little else. The third image is captioned: “To a visitor, 81 Bowery feels like a scene from a 21st-century version of an exposé by the documentary photographer Jacob Riis. But to the restaurant workers, laborers and retirees who live there, it is home.”

My favorite image in the series shows a dinner party in progress, as seen from above. It’s an easy shot to make because the walls of the cubicles don’t extend all the way to the ceiling. The precisely arranged dishes fill every inch of the tiny dinner table and the three guests practically fill the room. Every inch of the unit is organized for maximum efficiency, like a ship’s galley.

The series captures both the material privation of life at 81 Bowery and the resourcefulness of its residents.